The Nixon-era press held great power and responsibility – now, we are all editors

Thanks to the influence of social media, anyone trying to exercise power through old-fashioned channels faces a daily opinion poll.

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Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a timely film, but not in the way we’re meant to assume. Richard Nixon (boos) hated the press, Donald Trump (louder boos) also hates the press. The press – bravely and sometimes brilliantly, as The Post explores – helped to bring down Nixon. And so, with the right encouragement and courage…

I found The Post enjoyable and powerful, so this column is not so much critical as quizzical. For there are two problems with the analogy that is being implied, the first concerning personalities and the second to do with technological change.

For starters, apart from the fact that they’re both paranoid and unpleasant, there aren’t that many similarities between Nixon and Trump. Nixon belonged to a different kind of politics: worldly but shadowy power-brokers whose careers played out, as the classic American political phrase holds, in “smoke-filled rooms”. Nixon owed his ascent to the accumulation of political knowledge and influence, the exact opposite of a direct pitch to the masses.

Of the alternative careers that Nixon might have pursued, “TV personality” (Trump’s route to the top) was among the least likely. It was a poor TV debate with John F Kennedy that helped Nixon lose the 1960 election. Indeed, if Nixon had been better known as a “personality”, he surely wouldn’t have been elected. With Trump, it’s the opposite. He was only elected because he was so well known. (Pause for a moment here, and consider which electorate has more to feel guilty about.)

There is a wider problem with The Post as a rallying cry for our age: times have changed, overwhelmingly so. Yes, Trump and the phenomenon of fake news reaffirms the value of paying for real journalism. But flawed, self-published news isn’t going away any time soon.

“We have to be a check on their power” – that is the central sentence and message of the film. Consider, though, how power was much more tightly held in the 1970s than now, not only by the political elite but also by the press. If newspapers didn’t run something, effectively the story was dead. If citizens sought to bring injustice to light, newspapers were almost their only chance (short of legal action).

That’s why the film reminded me of the awesome responsibility that fell on editors as they weighed their judgements about what to print. The film’s authorial voice is: “Let’s support brave and great editors.” And how could your columnist, for whom journalism has always been a strand of working life, do anything other than agree with a film that champions the value and freedom of the press?

Here, my argument takes an uncomfortable turn. For instead of wishing for more great newspaper editors, ask yourself instead how you are doing as an editor. For we are all editors and publishers now. We turn our lives into newspapers on a daily basis. People act as editors (curating retweets), journalists (writing posts) and paparazzi (taking Instagram photos). People broadcast, use Photoshop, opine and gossip, and make it public on social networks. The media is no longer a professional “estate” but a mode of living, and a very democratic one.

The quantification of that democratic activity is a central addiction of modern life. Just as a professional editor is forced to balance high-mindedness with reach – “How the paper is declining,” we scoff – have you, as an amateur publisher, courted the gallery to gain a few cheap likes or followers?

The American journalist Michael Lewis argued that before the financial crisis economics exposed how countries – and people – behaved in a world of almost free credit. What would they buy, if they could buy anything? And how would they convince themselves of their own probity? In the same way, the age of social media has revealed how people behave when they can appoint themselves as editors.

Yes, there is some genuine exchange of insight and information. But also amply in evidence: petty vindictiveness, bullying, indifference about due process, herding behind vogueish opinion, self-righteousness, the restless desire to find feet of clay in everyone and a yearning for instant justice. Want information and opinion to be better edited? It starts at home.

This is pretty new. My generation – I am 40 – grew up believing that a small number of people held a great deal of responsibility and, correspondingly, that they had to be held vigilantly to account – still the world, effectively, described in The Post.

Now, given the influence of social media and the ripples it causes, anyone trying to exercise power through old-fashioned channels (ie holding down a job with responsibilities) faces a daily opinion poll. A large number of people, in other words, hold a small amount of power. Real democracy, you could argue.

Maybe part of the angst eating away at social and political discourse is a crisis of responsibility. “They” have been significantly disempowered. But there’s a flip side: it’s on us now. For there is no effective establishment, the media is all of us, and power is held more diversely and confusingly than at any stage in history.

In that context, what can responsible, professional journalism protect against – which excesses ought it to curb? If the previous target was the behind-closed-doors stitch-up, now, increasingly, it is the unchecked bandwagon.

In these restless times, it can feel as though a revolution is just around the corner. Maybe it is. Alternatively, the revolution has happened already and the uncertainty stems from problems of adjustment. Change began in Silicon Valley, then crept into the banalities and casual judgements of everyday life. So far, as revolutionaries, we haven’t done much to temper mob instincts. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration